This morning’s Gospel reading is Matthew 25:1–13:
Jesus told his disciples this parable:
“The kingdom of heaven will be like ten virgins who took their lamps and went out to meet the bridegroom. Five of them were foolish and five were wise. The foolish ones, when taking their lamps, brought no oil with them, but the wise brought flasks of oil with their lamps. Since the bridegroom was long delayed, they all became drowsy and fell asleep. At midnight, there was a cry, ‘Behold, the bridegroom! Come out to meet him!’ Then all those virgins got up and trimmed their lamps. The foolish ones said to the wise, ‘Give us some of your oil, for our lamps are going out.’ But the wise ones replied, ‘No, for there may not be enough for us and you. Go instead to the merchants and buy some for yourselves.’
While they went off to buy it, the bridegroom came and those who were ready went into the wedding feast with him. Then the door was locked. Afterwards the other virgins came and said, ‘Lord, Lord, open the door for us!’ But he said in reply, ‘Amen, I say to you, I do not know you.’ Therefore, stay awake, for you know neither the day nor the hour.”
An old saying describes the difference between knowledge and wisdom: “Knowledge is knowing what to say. Wisdom is knowing when to say it.” One could also say that knowledge is the acquisition of facts, while wisdom is the realization that one’s store of facts may be incomplete. It is enough to merely know when playing Trivial Pursuit, but most other cases require wisdom in making use of that knowledge.
Today we have two readings on the nature of wisdom and its uses. Our first reading comes from the Book of Wisdom, which describes it in anthropomorphic terms. Tradition tells us that the book captures the wisdom of Solomon, considered the wisest of the Israelite kings, who describes Lady Wisdom as an entity that existed from the Creation, ready to come to the aid of those who seek her — the righteous and worthy most of all.
These qualities of wisdom come into play in Jesus’ parable in today’s Gospel reading. We are told of ten virgins, equally split between the prepared and unprepared for a wedding feast. All ten, however, know perfectly well about the feast and that the bridegroom will come to escort them to it. They all had equal knowledge. However, five of them did nothing to prepare themselves for the potential of a long wait, while the other five used that knowledge of both the feast and its importance to prepare to wait as long as it took.
All of this is pretty straightforward, and the main lesson is clear. Those who wisely prepare for salvation will find it, while those who fail to do so won’t. However, there’s more to this parable and what it meant for Jesus’ audience than perhaps even they knew at that moment. For Jesus is also teaching us about the wisdom of perseverance as well as preparation.
In Jesus’ time, the arrival of the Messiah was thought to signal an almost immediate reconciliation with the Lord. Indeed, even some of the apostles appeared to think that Jesus would return within their natural lifetimes to judge the world and provide salvation. In our second reading from Paul’s letter to the Thessalonians, he describes Jesus’ return in judgment to call into heaven those “who have fallen asleep” as well as the righteous still living. Paul appears to include himself and his fellow Christians in Thessaly in the latter category: “Then we who are alive, who are left, will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air,” emphasis mine.
The early Church struggled for the meaning of the realization that Christ would not return in their lifetime. Jesus had warned them explicitly that they would not know the day or hour of his return, and that they should live their lives in preparation for it. In Matthew 24:36-37, Jesus even tells them that He does not know the time for judgment, nor all the angels in heaven, but only the Father. Yet, they had assumed that to be a shorter wait than it had obviously turned out to be.
This parable today is a gentle warning from Jesus about preparing for a long wait — a lifetime for each of us, in fact. We are not just called to prepare ourselves for salvation but to persevere in that preparation. That cuts both ways, in life as in the parable. The foolish virgins assumed at first that the bridegroom would be prompt, and then assumed they had plenty of time to prepare properly for his arrival. We do not know how long or short our days will be before the Bridegroom comes for us; we can neither rush unprepared or tarry with trivialities while we wait.
We know that He will come; it is wisdom, therefore, to live in a constant state of preparation. The apostles soon discovered this as well, realizing that Jesus’ Great Commission meant that His will was to get the whole world prepared for it. The mission of the apostles and the Church was to carry the Word to every nation so that they could repent, learn, and prepare as well.
Finally, this brings us to the lamps. Why did each of the virgins need their lamps in order to attend the feast? The bridegroom himself was to lead them to it. The lamps are symbolic of that Great Commission, in which each of us has been given the light of Christ. We are to prepare for Him by keeping it lit and illuminating everywhere we go, in one way or another. Merely having the lamp without oil is like having knowledge without wisdom; it is useless as anything other than a curio or even an idol. Only by keeping it lit, fueled by our faith in Christ, can we find our way to the Bridegroom, and illuminate that path for others. And only then will the Bridegroom recognize us when He approaches.
We are, through Christ, the light of the world. We have been given the knowledge of salvation and the grace to recognize it. All we need is the wisdom to keep our lamps lit, even in the darkness — and especially in the darkness.
The front-page image is a detail from “The Light of the World” by William Holman Hunt, c. 1854. Currently on display in the side chapel at Keble College, Oxford, UK. Via Wikimedia Commons.
“Sunday Reflection” is a regular feature, looking at the specific readings used in today’s Mass in Catholic parishes around the world. The reflection represents only my own point of view, intended to help prepare myself for the Lord’s day and perhaps spark a meaningful discussion. Previous Sunday Reflections from the main page can be found here.